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Citizen Koch and the Oligarchic Slide

It takes about $99,000 to buy a Democratic congressman. That’s one of the grim factoids we learn in Citizen Koch, the new documentary from directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal. That particular insight comes from James Bopp, who would know pay from payola; the conservative boffin has acted as a lawyer and advisor for a range of influential organizations, from the Republican Governors Association to Citizens United.

In the film’s impassioned telling, we owe the existence of this institutionalized corruption to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 Supreme Court case during which, in a five-to-four decision, the Court struck down any bans on corporate and union spending on behalf of candidates.

This is an unnecessarily narrow view of the problem—one could also point to other influential court cases, gerrymandered districts, regulatory capture, the supreme influence of lobbyists, and much else—but Citizen Koch is undoubtedly correct in casting the Citizens United decision as a hinge moment in American politics. As the directors ably chronicle, the decision to open the floodgates of corporate money will change how we do elections in this country, perhaps forever.

The impact of the Citizens United ruling was immediate and vast. Some twenty-two states ended corporate spending bans. The following year, the election of Scott Walker as governor of Wisconsin provided a Petri dish in which the Kochs and their elite cohort could begin enacting their plan to reduce regulations, erode the power of unions, and put in place policies to make spectacularly wealthy people even wealthier. Walker, whose rise to power had been greased by money from the Koch brothers and their front organizations, began an effort to strip public workers of collective-bargaining rights and to pass voter ID measures imported wholesale from ALEC, the shady clearinghouse of right-wing and free-market legislation. (The Kochs’ interest isn’t simply civic; they own several paper mills and an oil pipeline in Wisconsin.)

But Walker ran into a problem. Thousands of public employees and their allies, many of them traditionally Republican, were incensed that their rights were being taken away in order to pay for tax cuts for wealthier Wisconsinites. The rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol was flooded with activists, fire fighters, police officers, correctional employees, teachers, and others protesting Walker’s power grab. Their protest, along with an eventual effort to recall the governor, would fail, but it presaged the battles that would eventually be fought between right-wing political coalitions and public-sector workers in Michigan, Indiana, and many other states.

Citizen Koch closely follows the experiences of three Wisconsin public employees—a teacher, a correctional officer, and a healthcare worker for the VA. They are all longtime Republicans, sometimes atavistically so: the teacher, for example, is strongly anti-abortion; the VA employee’s husband hangs a Confederate flag in his bike shop and touts his belief in the “Castle Doctrine,” which allows homeowners to use deadly force if they fear for their lives.

What’s striking about the film is how thoroughly the directors capture these people’s sense of betrayal and soul-searching as they are not so much radicalized as self-actualized, pushed towards the realization that the party that long claimed to have their best interests in mind in fact does not. Soon the healthcare worker is proclaiming the virtues of unions (they brought us the weekend and the forty-hour workweek, she reasons) while her husband is casting his first vote ever, this one in favor of recalling Walker.

Along with these close-up portraits, Citizen Koch takes us through the maelstrom of the protests, the fleeing of Democratic state representatives to prevent a quorum that could pass these regressive laws, and the doomed recall campaign, in which Governor Walker’s side outspent his opponent eight-to-one. There are side visits to racist Tea Party comedians and a John Birch Society member lecturing to a mostly elderly, white audience about the German Jewish refugees who brought Marxism to middle America. Public employees emerge as the film’s heroes; it’s genuinely stirring to see them organizing, rallying their neighbors, speaking before small-town committees. Gwen Moore, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, is also a star—feisty, sharp, and good-humored in defending her constituents.

But the larger story of the film is contained in its title—the corrupting power of money in politics. The film takes it as a given (and indeed, experience has borne this out) that unlimited political advertising, particularly when we don’t know its source, can sway elections. Charles and David Koch, owners of the second-largest privately held company in the country, are the exemplars of this new age of corporate personhood, where companies are less people than Übermenschs: worshipped beings granted all the political rights of individuals but few of the responsibilities or restrictions. Thrift certainly isn’t among these qualities, as shown by the directors’ visits to Koch brother confabs—biannual fundraising retreats, replete with armadas of private security, held at resorts in California and Colorado, where the Kochs, along with likeminded millionaires and billionaires, apportion funds and assess the progress of their efforts.

The Kochs’ surrogates maintain a laughable commitment to the rhetoric of democracy and populism throughout. Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), another Koch vehicle, seems to believe his own nonsense when he tells the documentarians, “We don’t do election advocacy.” He utters this line while standing outside a bus filled with AFP employees calling Wisconsin residents and urging them to vote for the Kochs’ favored candidates. AFP, Phillips declares, is a “grassroots organization.”

Phillips and his cohort excel at this kind of self-serving delusion. The Tea Party is another grassroots movement, not a corporate-led affair funded by the Kochs and proselytized by Fox News. Governor Walker isn’t courting the favor of millionaires from Kansas and Texas; he’s fighting against the influence of outside money. Public employees making $42,000 a year are the true threat to democracy; so are unions, despite the fact that nearly all of the top political spenders are corporate entities. And the Supreme Court, in the majority decision for Citizens United, offers the assurance that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Nothing to see here.

Yet the web of connections between Citizens United, the Supreme Court, the Koch brothers, and top Republican politicians and lawyers is so dense that the case itself begs to be called a conspiracy. In 1991, Citizens United ran advertisements in support of Clarence Thomas during the tempest surrounding his appointment to the Court. Both Scalia and Thomas have spoken at Koch gatherings, while Scalia has also appeared at Tea Party events. Scalia, Thomas, and Alito participated in a 2013 fundraiser for the Federalist Society, which the Koch brothers also fund. Virginia Thomas, Justice Thomas’ wife, is a longtime political operative, including for the Heritage Foundation and Liberty Central, the latter a Tea Party-affiliated group. Their interests are all clearly aligned, which is likely why Justice Thomas neglected to include five years of his wife’s income, amounting to more than $680,000, as part of his requisite annual disclosures. (He didn’t update the record until 2011.)

With this history in mind, it is less surprising that the judges made the unusual decision to order that Citizens United be reargued in order to determine whether the Court should overrule its past decisions on corporate financing of political campaigns. It’s rare for the Court to overturn its past precedents, much less to greatly expand the scope of the question being argued. This was judicial activism at its purest, and it benefitted a group with whom members of the majority had close relationships.

Though the GOP has led the shift towards this kind of politics, it has affected the Democrats as well. Both parties are “joined at the billfold,” says Buddy Roemer, whose bootstrapping 2012 presidential campaign, which refused any donations above $100, is sympathetically portrayed in the film. “Money is a weapon,” the former Louisiana governor and House representative explains aphoristically. One isn’t inclined to doubt him.

What results is a pseudo-democracy, one in which all the ordinary institutions of democratic governance seem to function, but they’ve either been hollowed out or perverted towards illiberal ends. Congressmen are reelected at a 90 percent clip; their corporate allies enrich themselves at our expense while quietly supported by five members of the Supreme Court; the most vulnerable among us wonder which rights (voting, the Fourth Amendment, our social safety nets) might be taken away tomorrow. The slide towards oligarchy continues.

In fact, even the anodyne world of public television isn’t immune. Citizen Koch was supposed to air on PBS until officials from ITVS, an agency that helps choose documentaries for public airwaves, balked. ITVS and WNET, a New York affiliate of PBS, had run into trouble after airing Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, a film critical of our neo-Gilded Age. One of the film’s subjects was David Koch, who had donated $23 million to public television and sat on the WNET board. Koch eventually resigned his board seat, but the chilling effect was complete. The deal, along with $150,000 in promised funding, was scotched.

“We live in a world where we have to be aware that people with power have power,” an ITVS executive told the directors of Citizen Koch,” according to materials provided by the filmmakers. Power has a long hand: a year after this dustup, Citizen Koch is finally coming to theaters, but only in a handful of cities. Most Americans will have to work to see it.